People, Pixels And A Player

Sunday, June 28, 2009 /by

FedPriceless1

By TW Contributing Editor Andrew Burton (photo credit: Sam)

Morning, all.

We're at the middle Sunday of Wimbledon.  As this post goes up, Pete is on his way to England for the second week of the tournament.

Three weeks ago, Pete asked me to start thinking about writing an appreciation of Roger Federer, in the event that Federer should finally land the French Open title that was still, then, tantalizingly just out of reach.  So here we are.

Appreciations of a player typically follow one of a few well known structures.  First, there's the match description.  The wonderful shots by the victor, the plucky-but-ultimately-doomed efforts of the loser.  The more plucky the loser, the more wonderful the victor, the better the story.

Then there's the "hero's journey" story - the narrative of the Quest undertaken by the Player to achieve his Holy Grail.  This one's pretty easy to write - Holy Grail = French Open, the missing major on the resume, the 14th title, the GOAT status.  And there's some special spice - had Federer won his first RG final against Nadal in 2006, it would have been a pretty boring hero's story - eight of eight GS finals won, gosh he's so perfect, barely suppressed yawn.  Whereas now we have Return Of The King, the man who's been tested and emerged stronger, he was written off but look at him now, yup, the words just flow off the keyboard.

Another theme might be "Roger And Me."  I wasn't in Paris for Federer's matches, as Rosangel memorably was last year for Wimbledon F 2008.  Still, I was manning a keyboard throughout the tournament, so maybe that counts.  And there might be a post in the tale of matches watched at odd hours in the morning, of pilgrimages to tournaments, of the way the player has Changed My Life.  Still, I have a feeling that's also been done, and you've probably had it up to here with sports crushes, or religious experiences.

I thought I'd try a different tack.  Pete's blog has become a gathering place - a community, a Tribe.  As Federer got nearer the final, the tension and anticipation among his fans (including me) grew, until Sunday's catharsis.  This has become a shared experience, something which wasn't possible even ten years ago.  Match calling can link a fan in the Philippines with a friend in Canada, Portugal or India.  So I reached out to some of the people I knew in two online communities - TennisWorld and RF.com - to learn how others were enjoying the moment, and what Federer's victory at Roland Garros meant to them.

First up - guess the poster:

OMG, just UNFREAKINGBELIEVABLE...words can not express how overjoyed I am right now.  How utterly fantastic. The Fed's serve was the killer today, I can't remember the last time I saw him serve so unfreakingbelievable.  It's been way too long.  I am at a loss of words right now, and I can't string together coherent words. Just wanted to say congratulations...wohooooooo I will never have to watch another clay tourney again...LOL

I think that "unfreakingbelievable" is a hint: I just hope the author didn't take her hands off the wheel of the bus while texting.

Last summer, I had the pleasure of meeting Sher and her mother at Toronto, as we prepared for Federer's opening match of the tournament.  Sadly, it was Federer's last match: an imperious 6-2 first set against Gilles "oh Death, where is thy sting" Simon was followed by a baffling loss of concentration, then an outright collapse (from two, count 'em, two separate break leads in the third set).  Sher and I commiserated with each other then: after Federer's victory in Paris, she wrote

In many ways this feels like a fight that we've fought together with Roger. When he was down it was just as important for us to keep the belief in his ability to win as it was for him, and I don't mean only in the last two weeks. I've waited for three years for him to hold this trophy.

It is a pleasure to share it with such amazing people that I've met on TW.

ps Oh, and it's not over yet.

Matt Zemek brought a sportswriter's eye to the event:

For Roger Federer at the 2009 French Open, a slew of game-changing, mindset-bending curveballs (they might as well have had heavy lefty topspin on them) were thrown at a 13-time major champion who had seemingly seen it all.

To then see Federer wrest himself out of death's grasp against Tommy Haas; foil a tricky Frenchman to reach the jawdropping 20-slam-semi plateau; dig deep to outlast a gallant and radically improved del Potro; and deliver a mature, steady performance in the final, despite an outrageous lapse by Roland Garros's security forces, represents the latest, and surely the greatest, evidence of the focus and concentration that have enabled this man to attain a career slam and 14 overall titles, tied for the most in the history of his sport.

Nearly everyone watching the tournament felt the earth shake on the middle Sunday.  Many of us, watching from continents away, wondered how the aftershocks would affect the newly installed favorite.  CL expresses this beautifully, and connects her emotions in those days to earlier sporting memories:

Despite what he said during the week, the pressure must have been like a vice on every shot.  To watch him struggle, yet fight through the mismatched twins of hope and fear was remarkable, scary, blood pressure rising, sweaty, joyful and ultimately satisfying in ways that easier victories can never be.

The joy and wonder, (along with some of the heartbreaks), are by far the bestest and the mostest any tennis player has ever given me.  And pretty close to the greatest wonder and joy that any sporting event has ever given me.  As a teenager, my beloved Boston Celtics could keep me pacing up and down as I listened to their Championship seasons on a portable radio, punching the air and spinning with joy when they won... which they did a LOT.  Roger Federer is the first athlete since then who makes me feel that profound combination of wonder, awe, joy, and sublime exaltation.

As I wrote above, another tennis community was also celebrating - the place TW calls the Mothership.  One of RF.com's regulars, Sameena, told me

With the shared conciousness of the forum & the diverse ways in which people show their love & support for Roger comes the wonderful feeling of being part of something positive. 

This tournament showed me what the power of a slight change in fortune can achieve. In winning Madrid, I believe Roger had slayed some vicious dragons. The rest just flowed from that.

For krist, one of the pillars of RF.com, there was a sense of deliverance:

I see this FO as a tale of vindication for Roger and for the courage, patience, and belief he's shown through the last 1 1/2 year's adversities, but also through the last 5 years of disappointments at the FO.

I also see his epic battles and narrow escapes, round after round, as a very convincing proof, that just because Roger doesn't look like he's killing himself in every point, it doesn't mean he lacks heart, guts, fighting spirit, and desire to win.

Tangerine Popsicle also talks about Federer's fighting spirit - something that many of his fans worried had gone AWOL at the start of this year.  She also beautifully describes the emotions that many of us felt in the final few days of the tournament - wanting to know how it all ends, knowing that we'd have to wait and find out....

Watching Roger (my BFed:) these past two weeks, I felt as if I were in the middle of reading a deeply compelling mystery, desperately wishing I could skip to the final chapter to see how it ended.  The suspense was killing me.  This tournament seemed to take an eternity, unfolding in slow motion, each successive match bringing with it greater tension.   
 
Roger always makes the game of tennis look so easy.  But there was nothing easy about his journey to this final.  His struggles with his opponents and himself weren't always pretty, but they allowed him to shine in a different way.  He showed his fitness, grit, desire, mental toughness, courage, and  champion's heart, qualities that are too often taken for granted when discussing Roger's tennis attributes.  The struggles of the past two weeks, not to mention the four previous years in Paris, made the victory sweeter for him and his fans.
  

For my own part, I've been honestly surprised by how, three weeks on, the 2009 French Open seems like it happened a year ago.  The show goes on. 

For a week or so, I anticipated great happiness, I felt it, held onto it for a little while, and have now put it into memory.  What makes the memory richer is the connection I felt during the tournament, match calling, analyzing, hoping, frazzling, calming, then just letting it all out, with all the friends mentioned in this post, and the many, many others in the comments threads at TW, RF.com and on numerous other tennis sites around the world.  At one level it's just pixels on a screen, but at another it's what we all reach for but don't always find - human connection in our happiest moments.

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